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A collaborative blog by Locus editors, contributors, and other invited guests. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine or Locus Online.

 




 


Editor

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Contributors

Alan Beatts
Terry Bisson
Marie Brennan
Karen Burnham
Siobhan Carroll
John Clute
F. Brett Cox
Ellen Datlow
Paul Di Filippo
Michael Dirda
Gardner Dozois
Andy Duncan
Stefan Dziemianowicz
Brian Evenson
Jeffrey Ford
Karen Joy Fowler
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Theodora Goss
Elizabeth Hand
Cecelia Holland
Rich Horton
Guy Gavriel Kay
James Patrick Kelly
Mark R. Kelly
Ellen Klages
Russell Letson
Karen Lord
Brit Mandelo
Adrienne Martini
Tim Pratt
Cat Rambo
Paul Graham Raven
Graham Sleight
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Peter Straub
Rachel Swirsky
Paul Witcover
Gary K. Wolfe
E. Lily Yu

Growing Our Own Aliens?

I’m reading another book right now that has a self-aware AI emerging from The Internet or other complex computer system. It seems like I’ve read quite a few novels and stories using this trope over the last few years. Probably the most recently prominent would be Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, of which the first, Wake, was nominated for a Hugo in 2010. I have to say, I’m pretty skeptical about how feasible this kind of emergence might be.

My knee-jerk reaction is to say that having consciousness spontaneously emerge from “The Internet” is about as likely as having it emerge from “The Ocean.” That is, the ocean is a very complex system, but its components interact with each other in very constrained ways that would make this kind of emergent intelligence unlikely. When you look at the difficulties AI researchers have had in designing or growing an AI on purpose over the last 30 years, I think it’s even less likely that a sapient creature will bootstrap itself in networks not designed for that purpose.

I wonder if, given that contact with extraterrestrial aliens seems to be receding farther and farther into the future, we’re hoping that an alien intelligence will pop up here on Earth so we can talk to it. It’s certainly easier to imagine that than to imagine traveling to Procyon A and meeting aliens there. Is this another symptom of science fiction’s shift away from interstellar futures to information-dense terrestrial futures? Am I wrong in my assumption, and teh Intertubes will start talking back to us any day now? What do you think?

Update: When I posted this, I didn’t realize that today, April 19th 2011, was supposed to be the day that SkyNet (from the original Terminator movieSarah Connor Chronicles timeline) became self aware. Dude, talk about timing! However, I’ll suggest that the fact that nothing like this has happened (that we know about) reinforces the point…

Comments

Comment from Max Kaehn
Time April 19, 2011 at 7:29 pm

The web as currently constituted has no basis for developing interdependence or mutating. We’d need to switch to evolutionary algorithms that are designed to mutate, and give software on various machines incentive to talk to each other. Now, if we were to come up with an “Internet immune system” that adapted in real time to snuff out spammers and botnets, evolving to deal with each new annoyance, that could provide the basis for something like that to happen…

Comment from Russell Letson
Time April 19, 2011 at 8:46 pm

From what I read every day on my screen, an alien entity has already emerged from the Web, but it’s ill-mannered, obsessive, delusional, and incapable of spelling or punctuating. I feel annoyed but not particularly threatened.

Comment from Gizella Farago
Time April 19, 2011 at 11:08 pm

Long before Rob Sawyer, and much better written (though I still found it an annoying concept) was Dan Simmons Hyperion series; the almost godlike AI intelligences in his books derived we found out from the world wide web. Not sure he started with this concept, since the first book or two came out well before the internet was used by others than academics and the military…

Comment from Paul Duncanson
Time April 20, 2011 at 5:00 am

April 19 2011 was the day Skynet from the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series became self aware. The original movies set the date as August 29, 1997.

Comment from Karen Burnham
Time April 20, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Paul – Fixed the reference, thanks!

Russell – I hate to break it to you, but that level of ‘artificial stupidity’ seems to come from the actual humans on the Net!

Max – I’m not sure that even that kind of evolutionary algorithm would end up producing a system with actual sapient intelligence…

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